Wast­ing stu­dents’ time

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Thomas Sow­ell

Re­cent videos of Amer­i­can chil­dren in school singing songs of praise for Barack Obama were a lit­tle much, es­pe­cially for those of us old enough to re­mem­ber pic­tures of chil­dren singing the praises of dic­ta­tors like Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

But you don’t need a dic­ta­tor to make you feel queasy about the ma­nip­u­la­tion of chil­dren. The mind­set that sees chil­dren in school as an op­por­tu­nity for teach­ers to im­pose their own no­tions, in­stead of de­vel­op­ing the child’s abil­ity to think for him­self or her­self, is a danger­ous dis­tor­tion of ed­u­ca­tion.

Par­ents send their chil­dren to school to ac­quire the knowl­edge that has come down to us as a legacy of our cul­ture — whether it is math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence, or what­ever — so that those chil­dren can grow up and go out into the world equipped to face life’s chal­lenges.

Too many “ed­u­ca­tors” see teach­ing not as a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the stu­dents but as an op­por­tu­nity for them­selves — whether to in­doc­tri­nate a cap­tive au­di­ence with the teacher’s ide­ol­ogy, ma­nip­u­late them in so­cial ex­per­i­ments or just do fun things that make teach­ing eas­ier, whether or not it re­ally ed­u­cates the child.

You can, of course, call any­thing that hap­pens in a class­room “ed­u­ca­tion” — but that does not make it ed­u­ca­tion, ex­cept in the eyes of those who can­not think be­yond words. Un­for­tu­nately, the dumbed-down ed­u­ca­tion of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions means that many par­ents to­day see noth­ing wrong with their chil­dren be­ing ma­nip­u­lated in school, in­stead of be­ing ed­u­cated.

Such par­ents may see noth­ing wrong with spending pre­cious time in class­rooms chitchat­ting about how every­one “feels” about things on tele­vi­sion or in their per­sonal life.

But while our chil­dren are frit­ter­ing away time on trivia, other chil­dren in other coun­tries are ac­quir­ing the skills in math, sci­ence or other fields that will al­low them to take the jobs our chil­dren will need when they grow up. For­eign­ers can take those jobs ei­ther by com­ing to Amer­ica and out­per­form­ing Amer­i­cans or by hav­ing those jobs out­sourced to them over­seas.

In short, schools are sup­posed to pre­pare chil­dren for the fu­ture, not give teach­ers op­por­tu­ni­ties for self-in­dul­gences in the present. One of th­ese self-in­dul­gences was ex­em­pli­fied by a let­ter I re­ceived re­cently from a fifth-grader in the Sayre Ele­men­tary School in Lyon, Michi­gan.

He said, “I have been as­signed to ask a fa­mous per­son a ques­tion about how he or she would solve a dif­fi­cult prob­lem.” The prob­lem was what to do about the econ­omy.

In­stead, I replied to his par­ents: With Amer­i­can stu­dents con­sis­tently scor­ing near or at the bot­tom in in­ter­na­tional tests, I am re­peat­edly ap­palled by teach­ers who waste their stu­dents’ time by as­sign­ing them to write to strangers, cho­sen only be­cause those strangers’ names have ap­peared in the me­dia.

It is of course much eas­ier — and more “ex­cit­ing,” to use a word too many ed­u­ca­tors use — to do cute lit­tle stuff like this than to take on the sober re­spon­si­bil­ity to de­velop in stu­dents both the knowl­edge and the abil­ity to think that will en­able them to form their own views on mat­ters in both pub­lic and pri­vate life.

What earthly good would it do your son to know what eco­nomic poli­cies I think should be fol­lowed, es­pe­cially since what I think should be done will not have the slight­est ef­fect on what the gov­ern­ment will in fact do? And why should a fifth-grader be ex­pected to deal with such ques­tions that peo­ple with Ph.D.’s in eco­nomics have trou­ble wrestling with?

The dam­age does not end with wast­ing stu­dents’ time and mis­di­rect­ing their en­er­gies, se­ri­ous though th­ese things are. Get­ting stu­dents used to looking to so-called “fa­mous” peo­ple for an­swers is the an­tithe­sis of ed­u­ca­tion as a prepa­ra­tion for mak­ing up one’s own mind as cit­i­zens of a democ­racy, rather than as fol­low­ers of “leaders.”

Nearly 200 years ago, the great econ­o­mist David Ri­cardo said: “I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and pow­er­ful a suf­fi­cient in­duce­ment to turn aside from the straight path of hon­esty and the con­vic­tions of my own mind.”

The fad of as­sign­ing stu­dents to write to strangers is an ir­re­spon­si­ble self-in­dul­gence of teach­ers who should be teach­ing. But that prac­tice will not end un­til enough par­ents com­plain to enough prin­ci­pals and enough elected of­fi­cials to make it end.

Thomas Sow­ell is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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